An interview with SKP Head Teacher Margaret Pennoyer
St. Hilda’s & St. Hugh’s has remained open for in-person learning since the first week of September, thanks in part to the careful health and safety protocols observed by faculty, students, and families, and also to the creative adjustments teachers have made to classroom procedures and routines.
In this article, Senior Kindergarten Head Teacher Margaret Pennoyer writes about unexpected silver linings that these perceived “limitations” have inspired, with teachers and students finding new opportunities for discovery and creativity in facing challenges.
Q: Tell us about how things are different in your classroom this year.
Ms. Pennoyer: This year, our classrooms look a little different. One of the most obvious changes is that senior kindergarten students are sitting at desks, rather than the shared tables they were accustomed to in nursery, junior kindergarten, and under normal circumstances, senior kindergarten as well. This allows us to maintain appropriate social distance between students. While it is a change from our regular set-up, the children have adjusted to it well, and it has inspired unexpected play scenarios.
We’ve also adjusted the set-up of our play areas where children would normally share toys and and build with blocks to act out elaborate play scenarios.
To accommodate frequent cleaning of our shelves and other surfaces, we have fewer shared supplies and manipulatives. (Manipulatives are toys or learning tools that help children develop and practice different skills—a set of stacking blocks, for example, might help a child build fine motor skills, investigate balance, and develop spatial awareness.)
Instead, children each have their own sets of supplies, and at the start of the week, they choose one manipulative to use for the week ahead. I was worried that limiting their choices might frustrate children, or that some items might not be able to entertain children for an entire week, but I was wrong. Children create, build, and problem-solve more than ever.
Q: Can you explain a bit more about manipulatives and how that has changed this year?
Ms. Pennoyer: I believe students are being especially creative with their play this year, because they can’t keep switching one toy out for another. For some manipulatives we have multiple sets, for others just one. Having just one manipulative to play with for the week has allowed children to creatively figure out different ways to use the same materials.
Students also use each other as resources to help solve problems. Sometimes at the outset of play, a child might find a particular manipulative physically difficult to use. Rather than giving up and pulling out a different toy, the children endeavor to figure out, or they ask a friend how the pieces fit together.
With their own supplies, I worried that children wouldn’t get to practice taking turns or delayed gratification. When two or three children wanted to use the same toy in previous years I would set a timer. Now, a child might have to wait a week or so before getting the toy. During that time, they watch and notice what their friends are doing, and I can see them planning in their heads.
Dramatic play has taken on new dimensions this year—children improvise without the traditional baby dolls, pretend food, or a kitchen table. At the start of the year we paired children up one day and had one child design a structure on a dry erase board, and then a partner built that structure with the manipulatives they had chosen. Since then, collaborative play has happened more organically.
Q: What are some other examples of collaborative play this year?
Ms. Pennoyer: We had an ingenius, organic coding success story. One day during choice time and rest, two children sat next to each other. One cut up paper and taped it together to make a large robot, while another child drew intently on a piece of paper. The second child’s drawing turned out to be a remote control. The children each brought their paper creations out on the playdeck, and for 15 minutes the robot was maneuvered by the remote control. That’s a truly valuable, hands-on form of coding!
Another day, two friends chose the same castle-building set one morning. Six feet apart, they built a zoo! Their zoo had a large pathway down the middle, so they were able to play together without touching one another.
Another highlight was our classroom orchestra, which began with a child who built a baton and started conducting. A classmate sitting behind noticed and cut out a violin out of construction paper. Soon we had an unconventional orchestra, with bagpipes and five conductors. Some instruments were made of paper, and others with different manipulatives.
Q: Tell us about the SK puppet show.
Ms. Pennoyer: In another classroom (SKM, taught by Laura McNeill and Candise Vaughn), students turned their desks into a puppet theater. Each child made puppets, attached them to popsicle sticks, and set them on a large piece of construction paper, which they taped to the front legs of the desk. Some children acted out The Three Little Pigs (which we had been studying) while others created their own stories.
I think the social distancing requirements are giving some of our quieter students more opportunities to be directors of play. During the first few weeks of school, one of my students was playing independently, using uncharacteristically loud voices for each of her characters—I think having a desk gave her added security and confidence. As the year has progressed, she comfortably plays and interacts with those around her.
Q: Do you think there’s any other hidden benefits to social distancing this year?
Ms. Pennoyer: This year every student is getting more practice in following multi-step directions. They are also developing their expressive and receptive language skills. One child went in front of the class and taught the class how to draw a knight in a step-by-step process, and the entire class followed the directions.
We’ve also seen some benefits to children’s sense of responsibility and self-help skills. Helping with cleanup is part of the routine. Children for whom this is challenging can’t rely on their classmates to do the majority of cleanup in an area. Children are also responsible for keeping all of their books and writing implements organized.
Q: How has the change in schedule impacted the classroom dynamic?
Ms. Pennoyer: While we still have a very robust schedule of special classes, like P.E., second language, art, science, and music, we spend more time in the classroom. Having fewer transitions in and out of the classroom has allowed for longer choice times and makes more room for flexibility. Knowing that we have almost all day with the children in the classroom allows us to be more responsive in the moment and extend choice times or lessons when we see valuable learning happening. This is a wonderful silver lining.
Margaret Pennoyer is one of the head teachers of senior kindergarten at St. Hilda's & St. Hugh's. She has been a member of the senior kindergarten teaching team since 2013 and also has served as the lower division learning specialist.
Ms. Pennoyer has a master's degree in Early Childhood and Special Education from Teachers College, Columbia University. Her undergraduate degree is from Bates College.